|North Sea Passage: Kiel, Germany to
Gosport, UK (via Cuxhaven, Germany)
July 12th to July 15th, 2003
550 miles; 480 non-stop
From the beginning of dreaming of this halfway around voyage there have been three passages that
have weighed most on my mind: the North Sea, Bay of Biscay, and Fiji to New Zealand. While the much
longer transoceanic passages are not to be taken lightly, they are all passages in tropical waters
where, outside of hurricane seasons (when we will be elsewhere) there are few low pressure systems
and storms are rare. However these three passages will be our longest in non-tropical waters and
therefore we have the potential for encountering the strong low pressure systems which generate high
winds and seas. The North Sea has its own additional hazards of high shipping traffic, shallow
waters, few ports of refuge, and the navigational hazards of dozens of offshore oil and gas
platforms. Additionally, it would be our first real passage of more than a single short Nordic
Despite our worries, or perhaps because of them, in general, we were treated kindly by the weather
gods and had light conditions. That is not to suggest that the trip was uneventful. In fact we
nearly tee-boned another sailboat, were almost crushed by a freighter, and but for some
white-knuckled helming by Nancy could have had the dodger ripped off by seven foot waves. And to
that we can add the excitement of the English Channel shipping traffic.
After two 100 mile days from Copenhagen we arrived at Kiel Germany on the western end of the Baltic
Sea. There are two ways to go from the Baltic Sea into the North Sea. If your mast is over 132
feet or your draft is more that 33 feet, then you must sail north up through the "Kattegat" between
Denmark and the west coast of Sweden and then turn south entering the North Sea between Norway and
Denmark. Fortunately, our mast is only 75 feet off the water and our keel is only 9 feet below the
water so we could take the Kiel Canal, thereby saving about 200 miles.
|The red line is our actual route sailed.
The 56 nautical mile Kiel Canal is the portion of the
route crossing northern Germany. Kiel is on the Baltic Sea of Germany. The SW end of the canal
ends in the river Elbe, a major river of N. Germany which passes through Hamburg on its way north to
the North Sea. Further SW is the massive Europort and Rotterdam, Netherlands which comprise
northern Europe’s busiest ports. Also in this region are dozens and dozens of offshore oil
and gas platforms.
We had been advised that we could tie alongside the quay in Holtenau at the entrance to the canal,
spend the night and then transit early in the morning. We had a successful docking operation as
about a dozen German tourists stood watching, hands on hips, as we raced back and forth securing our
lines. Once this was completed, we congratulated ourselves, showered and got ready to go to the
market to provision for the passage and then were told that we could not stay there. A very
helpful Stanford materials engineering professor directed us to a place in the nearby crowded marina
where we could tie-up.
|The northeast entrance to the Kiel Canal at Holtenhau,
with ships inside and lock gates closed.
Moving the boat through a crowded waterway, the electronic gremlins struck as the bow
thruster/propeller malfunctioned and would not stop "thrusting" the bow to port. This is kind of
like making a left turn onto Broadway and not being able to straighten the wheel or stop the car.
Instantly we were starting to do donuts at 6 knots into several nearby vessels. I was frantically
pushing the on/off button, yelling at Nancy to go below and shut the breaker off and flailing my
arms like a windmill to alert the nice-looking people on the boat following us that I had no idea
what was happening and was about to ram them. Fortunately, we figured out that by accelerating the
boat forward the radius of the turn would be much greater and we could miss several boats. This
allowed enough time for Nancy to get to the breaker switch before we hit anyone. The show had
provided great entertainment for fellow boats as we looked like complete idiots.
July 12th - Kiel Canal
The 56 mile canal was built by the Kaiser in 1895 and is a fairly straight-forward affair with a
lock at either end to connect the non-tidal Baltic with the very tidal North Sea. The amount of
raising or lowering is dependant on the height of the tide at the North Sea end and is generally
less than 10 feet.
At 6:30 on a clear morning we waited outside the lock for 3 or 4 large ships to enter and then were
signaled with a steady white light that yachts could enter. We motored slowly in and tied about 30
feet behind a large ship to a slippery floating dock about 4 feet wide and right on the water. We
secured ourselves with 4 lines and waited for the lock to close by sliding a massive steel door
across the entrance.
However, the lock was held open for a last freighter quickly steaming up to get inside. It appeared
that this big grey 400 foot mammoth was expecting to tie up right behind us. Nancy and I watched
from our cockpit as she moved toward us and the bow deckhand got a line on the stone quay. As she
continued to bear down on us, the deckhand started yelling and waving frantically back to the
bridge, which we could not see, as he surged the 4 inch diameter docking line trying to slow the
ship. Clearly the captain had failed to see us and was planning on pulling right behind the ship in
front of us, crushing us like a tiny plastic egg. Nancy asked "is he going to hit us?" "He already
has" I mumbled as it seemed impossible that the momentum he had on could possibly be stopped in the
remaining 30 feet. Nancy jumped off the boat and I braced myself for our transom to be destroyed in
slow motion. Miraculously, the ship stopped four feet short of us with the deckhand’s face
red and covered in sweat; I went below to change my shorts.
|The ship after we had moved forward 10 feet
(notice the dent on his bow from prior incidents!)
The rest of the transit was bucolic, like motor sailing through a cow pasture, which was in fact
what we did and it smelled like it. We arrived at the far end, Brunsbuttel where the canal joins
the river Elbe around 4:00 pm with a sense that the whole scene was about the change. The wind had
picked up a fair bit.
We had timed our arrival at Brunsbuttel at close to maximum ebb so that the outgoing tide could
carry us the 20 miles downstream to Cuxhaven, which is near the mouth of the Elbe and the entrance
to the North Sea. The wind was blowing 25 knots out of the W.
The sailing directions and guides for this area all say something to the effect of: "The river Elbe
runs up to 3.5 knots on an ebb (outgoing) tide. The Elbe estuary is extremely dangerous if there is
a strong W or NW wind against the tide and waves of up to 2 meters are possible. Extreme caution is
So with 25 knots of west wind and a full ebb tide, we were set to see the full force of current
against wind as it builds up over a 25 mile estuary. Fortunately, in the last lock before entering
the river, another boat was in front of us. It was a 32 foot sailboat with an elderly Swedish
couple aboard. We let them go first, to "test the waters". Through the lock gates, the massive
muddy river opened before us with huge waves. The little boat turned downstream and into the wind
to starboard accelerating like a cork in rapids and within 30 seconds the boat went straight up the
face of a wave and crashed down the other side with such force that the hull disappeared as muddy
waves washed across its deck. The last I saw the tough Swedes were clinging to the cockpit and
sipping tea as the water washed over them.
To my surprise, Nancy watched all of this and instantly demanded to take the wheel from me. She
later claimed it looked so bad that she figured the only way she’d be comfortable was if she
was driving. Between her boat handling skills and our 25 tons of displacement we seemed to fair
better than the Swedes and arrived in Cuxhaven without event.
The actually North Sea passage was fairly calm; we had monitored the weather carefully in advance
and with the assistance of a professional "weather router" had picked a weather window that had
little risk of low pressure systems or adverse winds. In fact we had to motor through much of the
passage due to light winds and our desire to get to England before a projected frontal system hit
the English Channel with strong westerlies.
Most of the challenge was navigational and ship avoidance. In some ways the shipping traffic causes
less stress here that it did in the Gulf of Bothnia because much of the North Sea has traffic
separation zones which confine the large ship to lanes which are clearly marked on the charts. Thus
we could confine our encounters to those two or three times when we needed to cross the shipping
lanes. However, the volume of shipping made this like a turtle crossing a freeway and we had to
pick our spots carefully. To quote the North Sea Passage Pilot: "There are around 150
cross-channel shipping movements on an average day plus around 250 ‘up and down’
movements to which must be added innumerable fishing vessels, yachts, motor boats, all wending there
way through the Straits – just 18 miles wide at their narrowest – at speeds ranging from
a 3 knot tug-and-tow to a hovercraft at 30 knots. In other words a yacht taking two hours to cross
the 10-mile width of the two lanes in the Strait would meet on average 1 ship every 6 minutes."
We did in fact have up to 15 or 20 ships on our radar as we passed the cliffs of Dover around
midnight but had no close encounters and proceeded into the Solent under sail at 10 knots arriving
in Gosport at Camper and Nicholsons boat yard around 2:00 pm and were at the local pub enjoying some
fine English beer by 3:00 pm.
||In Holtenhau (Kiel), we were joined by a great Danish couple, Helle and Gert Nielsen who are
friends of our Copenhagen harbormaster. They both are match racing sailors in Copenhagen and race 35
foot keel boats year round, yes that includes ice and snow. This was the first time anyone other than
us had handled Apsara and we were a little cautious, but Helle and Gert were competent crew for the whole
passage to Gosport and we felt lucky to have them aboard.
We left Apsara at the boatyard for two weeks to have a host of projects done including adding a
dedicated weather fax, dingy chocks, repair work to the water-maker, fix a leaking rudder bearing,
and a half dozen smaller projects. We spent a few days in London and then a week in the Dordogne
and Lot river regions of France while the work was done. (The French were without exception polite
and warm to us and even tolerant of our lack of language skills. And, the food was excellent. )
While some of the boat projects were completed as expected while we were away, several things were
not done properly and we concluded that leaving the boat unattended at the boat yard was something
that we will not do again if the projects are even slightly complicated or involved. We remained at
Campers for a week longer than expected as the projects dragged out but finally by August 8, 2003 we
sailed for Dartmouth to prepare for crossing the Bay of Biscay.